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Former NFL player Berger forever grateful for late father's influence

Mitch Berger will forever be indebted to his father — and he's trying to remember the good times after his dad's death during an extremely challenging stretch.

Mitch Berger will forever be indebted to his father — and he's trying to remember the good times after his dad's death during an extremely challenging stretch.

The 48-year-old Canadian, who played 16 NFL seasons (1994-2009) as a punter with 11 teams, was twice named an All-Pro and captured a Super Bowl in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Berger says he owes it all to his father, Donald, who died July 19 at age 80 in Vancouver following a long battle with Parkinson's Disease.

"My whole football life, everything I have, is because of my dad," Berger said in a telephone interview. "We started watching games together when I was four . . . he coached me, he taught me how to kick out of a handbook, he put field goal posts in our back yard.

"My dad was with me every single day, he kicked with me every single day, he worked with me every single day. He never said no, he never quit, he never got tired. Everywhere and anywhere, he was my entire life."

The pandemic created no shortage of challenges for Berger, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. Initially, he couldn't travel to Canada and when he could, he had to self-quarantine for 14 days upon his arrival.

Berger was in quarantine when his father passed away.

"I was five minutes away from him and couldn't go see him," Berger said. "It was very, very difficult being down the street but being unable to hug my mom or dad.

"Thank God for Facetime but, really, it was awful."

Don Berger was a native of Homestead, Pa., who joined the Air Force at age 17 and met his wife, Evelyn, in 1960. The senior Berger was a diehard Steelers fan and a career highlight for Mitch Berger was having his entire family present to watch Pittsburgh defeat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., in Super Bowl XLIII.

"That was the last time my family was together, it (Super Bowl) brought my whole family together," said Berger. "After we won, families were allowed on the field but my dad, with his Parkinson's, couldn't come down.

"So we have a video of me running into the stands and telling my dad I got one for him. It's the first time I'd seen my dad cry in his whole life and that was amazing to see."

Mitch Berger also lost his older sister, Melissa, to Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease, last year.

Following Pittsburgh's Super Bowl victory, Berger got to visit the neighbourhood that his father grew up in.

"He never talked much about growing up because he never talked about himself," Berger said. "We ended up learning about his hometown, the street where he played football with his best buddy, Tommy.

"We went to his neighbourhood bar. He was going down the street telling everybody who I was. It was amazing."

But Don Berger did more than just mentor his son. He created the Mini Basketball League in North Delta., B.C., and served as a coach and president of the North Delta Minor Football League.

He received the Orange Helmet award in 2010 from the CFL's B.C. Lions and in 2018 joined Mitch Berger in the BC Football Hall of Fame, making them the only father-son tandem in the shrine.

Mitch Berger has also been named for induction into Tyler Junior College's sports circle of honour. Berger played at the Texas school in 1990-91 before transferring to Colorado and ultimately being drafted in 1994 by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Berger said his dad was instrumental in his landing at Tyler Junior College.

"My dad took me to camps in the U.S. to compete against American kids because he knew if I was ever going to make it in the NFL I needed to get to the U.S. somehow," Berger said. "When I wasn't recruited, he put every cent he had into a video to send out to colleges.

"When I told my kicking coach in the U.S. that, he found me a scholarship to junior college in Tyler, Texas. It was an awful start as I wanted to go home but my dad talked me into staying and sticking it through and was I glad that I did."

It's clear Don Berger's drive and determination were passed on to his son, who had to persevere through being released throughout his pro career.

"That and my ability to fight," Mitch Berger said. "He had Parkinson's for over 20 years and he always had a good fight and spirit about it.

"He'd always ask, 'What do I have to do to get out of this hospital? How many reps do I have to do of this?' He always grinded and worked hard. My dad would tell me, 'It's not the work you put in when everybody was watching that counted but it was the work you put in when no one was looking that made you the best.'"

Sadly, Parkinson's remains within the Berger family as Evelyn was diagnosed with the disease about two years ago. But perspective is helping Mitch Berger take the future in stride.

"I'm the worst when it comes to perspective," he said. "But when stuff like this happens, you always have to appreciate what you have and realize there's always someone who has it worse than you."


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 21, 2020.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press